Natural Wonders

The world of Yucatán: Mayans, cenotes and magical pueblos | Travel

The path to the hacienda by night was dimly lit, hidden by towering trees, wrapped in stygian mystery. As we followed it, cautiously, shadows suddenly moved, and shapes emerged: human forms with fantastic heads of deer and owls, their bodies painted with snakes and jaguar’s markings. They whispered, hissed, beckoned and warned.

I am no fan of the conquistadors who wreaked havoc and destruction when they came to the New World, but for a moment, I couldn’t help but wonder they had thought when they arrived and beheld such beings. What country, friends, is this?

I was in the state of Yucatán, and this was the opening night of Tianguis, an annual event in which the 32 states of Mexico come together in one host state to showcase their attractions for visitors. The superb actors — if this is what they were — at the entrance to the magnificent Hacienda Xtepén were a striking reminder: There is more to Mexico than the beckoning beaches of Cancun.

Thousands of travel agents and other hospitality people, along with travel writers, attend Tianguis, a glorious show of colors, costumes, music, and food — as well as briefings by hotels, tours and other attractions for visitors. Yucatán had been scheduled to host it in 2020, but it was cancelled by COVID-19, so this year, the state was ready to go to invite the world back to Mexico.

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Before the three-day conference began, members of the media were invited to explore Yucatán, and I found myself in a white van with 10 others, from Spain, Peru, Columbia, Brazil, Florida and New York. The latter two and I were the only ones who spoke but stumbling Spanish. It’s amazing how quickly your vocabulary can grow.

Our itinerary was called Mágico” because it would comprise not only the fabled sites of Yucatán, the mysterious underground pools called cenotes, and the remnants of the mighty Maya empire, but also the villages that have been designated Pueblos Mágicos by Mexico’s Secretariat of Tourism. Intended to increase tourism to small towns in rural areas, these “magical villages” have been chosen for their folklore, history, festivals, traditions, natural beauty, indigenous art and crafts or exceptional hospitality and food, all alluring for visitors.

We set off, from Yucatán’s capital city of Merida, itself a magical city known for the beauty of the city center, where many buildings from the colonial era have been preserved. (It is also consistently rated by travel magazines as one of the safest in Mexico, if not North America.) 

As we were to discover, remnants of colonial times are found throughout the region in the form of grand haciendas that are often now hotels, but this era is just one of the layers in the rich world of Yucatán. 

The highways are superb, broad, clean and in good repair; the adventures came when our van would bounce off of them and onto narrow, winding roads.

A first turn-off brought us to a pueblo mágico, Muna, and a visit to a workshop where artists create replicas of Mayan art, those fiercely mysterious animal-man gods we’d meet again later. 

The cenotes

Another turn brought us onto an even narrower road, this one unpaved and full of bumps, taking us deeper into a jungle-like terrain. One man was sure he saw a monkey in a tree.

We had come to our first cenote.

To understand these natural wonders, one needs to go back even further in time, 66 million years ago when the asteroid smashed into the Yucatán peninsula, creating the Chicxulub Crater and causing the mass extinction of 75 percent of life on Earth, including the non-avian dinosaurs. (Most scientists agree on this after the discovery of asteroid dust at Chicxulub Crater in the 1980s.)

Our guide also believed firmly the asteroid caused the formation of the cenotes, which are found throughout Mexico. (Other theories, more mundane, attribute them to such things as rain dripping through limestone.) Whatever the cause, the underground pools are not only things of beauty — crystalline water, surrounded by vines and roots of enormous trees many with only a small opening to the sky — but also sources of water and recreation.

Caves and tunnels often connect the cenotes. This first cenote we visited was a quiet place, reached by a steep stairway to a jungle of flowering plants and dripping vines surrounding clear, turquoise water. A second, at Cenotes Hacienda Mucuyché, has a restaurant and bar, life-jacket and towel rentals, and a gift shop. 

Our guide showed us charts of the life that has been found in cenotes — adding teasingly that no one really knows what lies at the bottom: Did the ancient Mayans throw their sacrificial human offerings there? “Now, who wants to swim?”

In search of the Maya world

The ruins of the Mayan Empire, the zenith of which was 200 to 900 AD, are scattered throughout Mexico and Central America. Probably the best known in Yucatán is Chichen Itza, but this was not on our itinerary. Instead we were going to Uxmal. 

“People talk as if the Mayans are gone,” one guide told us. “But we are still here. I, myself, am Mayan. We speak the language, keep traditions. In villages in Yucatán, you will find people who speak only Mayan, no Spanish.” 

At Uxmal, our van stopped at a picturesque lodge set amidst lush gardens. Run by Mayaland Resorts, it offered luxurious rooms, a tiled pool and an open dining pavilion under an enormous thatched roof — but where were the ruins?

“We’ll see them later,” our guide said. “First, dinner.”

It wasn’t until night when the nearly full moon had risen that we finally assembled past the traffic barriers at the entrance to what looked like an enormous and thoroughly modern cement building. We joined a line that snaked past shops and a restaurant. We waited to go through more ticket checkpoints.

Finally, the modern world fell away and we were looking up at the Pyramid of the Magician, the central structure in Uxmal, which we were told means “thrice-built.” It was home to approximately 25,000 people between 600 and 1000 AD. The mighty pyramid rises to a height of 131 feet, and I wondered: How had we not been able to see it from our comfortable hacienda? 

In truth, not all of the modern world had disappeared. We were there to preview a new multi-media show created for the site. With drumbeats and flashing lights, the narration began at the foot of the Magician’s Pyramid and continued through other stations in the ruins, building up to the climax in the open yard of the Nunnery Quadrangle. Here a larger-than-life show of sound, light and moving figures recounted a legend.

Vivid in colors, snakes, jaguars, and butterflies and ancient Mayans moved over the walls around us growing, shifting, merging one into another. One could almost believe one had taken a sip of a shaman’s magical mushroom tea. I mention this only because, the entire presentation was in Spanish, and I thought I understood it. (This after spending one day in a van of Spanish-speakers, except for the guys from Florida and New York.) 

This is a high-tech way to experience the mysterious world of the Mayans. Another day, we found another entirely different one. The day’s itinerary noted we were headed toward the ocean to see the port town of Progresso, the Kokomo Beach Club and also “the X’cambo Archaeological Zone.” 

To reach X’cambo, we again turned off the main road and rumbled down a dirt drive, past flocks of seabirds. We stopped at a building, hardly more than a shack and paid a few pesos. There was no gate, no souvenir stand, no crowds or lines, just a Mayan wall with an opening. 

We were the only ones there, in the center of the ruins of a settlement. We were free to wander, to climb to the top of the highest temple, to sit on rocks, to talk to a lone iguana. With no one telling us the story, we were left to wonder: What was the story of this abandoned place? Who had built it and why and where had they all gone?

Uxmel was spectacular, as are, I am sure the other ruins like Chichen Itza, but this place had pure enchantment.

In a head-spinning way that you jump through time on trips, our next stop was at the newly renovated and reopened Kokomo Beach Club, a lovely white and palm tree spot with an excellent restaurant (we sampled soft-shell crab and lobster tacos, grilled fresh fish, ceviche) and equally good prices: The two-bedroom, two-bathroom penthouse, with a veranda looking out at the sea was renting for about $250 a night, although prices increase somewhat in high season, we were told.)

Progresso, too, while an important port with a long, white-sand beach, lined with a promenade of shops and restaurants, also had a quietly idyllic feel that it had not quite been discovered by visitors.  

Xibalba

For another glimpse of the world of both Mayan culture and cenotes, we made a full-day excursion from Merida to the Xibalba Reserve, a project under construction, slated to open in June 2022. When I learned it was a “theme park” I almost bowed out of this trip but I am glad I didn’t. The theme park doesn’t quite describe what they are creating. 

Xibalba is the Mayan underworld, another guide, also Mayan told us. After discovering a series of cenotes, the developer, Xcaret, is creating a dramatic means of exploring them: Digging canyons with paths that follow the trail of the cenotes as guides tell the story of the Hero Twins from Mayan mythology. 

Eventually, visitors will be able to fly through the canyon on zip lines, swim in the cenotes, pilot canoes from one cenote to another,  work a hand-pumped train to take them to a Mayan village or get married at an underground church. But all we did was walk along the narrow trails by the water, gaze at the startling blue cenotes and hear legends. I predict, however, it will become a popular family destination; it is not far from Cancun, another site created for visitors — but Xibalba holds out a promise that tourists might learn something too.

After these days of wandering — meeting people carving wooden bowls, weaving hammocks and making tortillas in the publeos mágicos, having sumptuous dinners in old haciendas — we returned to Merida for the beginning of the Tianguis. This conference is all business but with such color, such verve; one could conclude that to visit Mexico, is to go sliding on a rainbow. 

Yucatán: On my last day there, I was standing outside the conference center, watching a group of tiny children, all wearing the traditional costumes — white for the boys, and the vividly embroidered white dresses for the girls — as a man explained to me that they were waiting to sing a Disney song from “Frozen.” I asked if these children who live where it is 80 degrees in November might have trouble imagining what it might be to be frozen. This he shrugged off; the important thing was they were going to sing it in Mayan. 

“Where have you been so far?” he asked, and I rattled of a list, similar to what I have just written. “But you didn’t go to Celestun?” he asked. “But you have to go there. It’s where you can see hundreds of flamingos. Now is the time to go to see them.”

I will have to go back. 



The Yummy History , of Hot Chocolate . That cold winter night staple has a long and intricate history. The Mayans, in what is now Mexico, were likely the first civilization to drink chocolate cold way back in 500 BC. Made from ground cocoa seeds, the frothy Mayan chocolate drink also included cornmeal and chili peppers mixed in water. . The Spanish conquistador, Hérnan Cortés, brought cocoa beans and the recipe back to Europe. There, the Spanish removed the chili power and began to drink the chocolate warm. Served to mostly the upper class, the drink remained in Spain for a century. In 18th century London, the sweetened drink was a hit, inspiring chocolate houses — the precursor to today’s coffee house — to spring up all over the city. Though Jamaicans had been mixing chocolate with milk for sometime, Hans Sloane introduced the practice to Londoners. This beverage became a popular after-dinner drink. From the American powder-based drink to Spain’s thick chocolate a la taza, hot chocolate remains popular in different forms all over the globe today







Sasha Paulsen is features editor at the Napa Valley Register. 


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